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The Canadian Review of American Studies, Volume VIII, Number l, Spring 1977 War, Society, and the "New" Military History of the United States Reginald C. Stuart Analysts of America's military past have long labored beneath a cloud. Their study of war and warriors has focused upon the causes of conflict and the methods of combat. Liberal scholars have often felt uncomfortable with both topics. Furthermore, the orientation of military writers has been largely either popular or professional, emphasizing the heroic aspects of American wars or the strategic and tactical lessons which servicemen might extract from them. But a "new" military history has emerged since the close of World War II, with a broader scope and less dominated by popularizers and professional soldiers. Since 1945 America's military past has been steadily reinterpreted from a civilian perspective. There has been an increasing emphasis upon the social origins of American military institutions, the development of civil-military relations, the intellectual perspectives of both military history and civilian views of the armed forces, and an awareness of how political as well as economic realities have shaped military policy and activity in the United States.' World War II, the Cold War, and especially the Vietnam experience have combined to prompt this scholarly reassessment of the contours of America's military past. For many Americans, this has unveiled a new facet of their national character. Like violence, a certain brand of militarism has been endemic in American history. Problems of terminology notwithstanding, the old clic;:hethat Americans have been warlike but unmilitary is no longer tenable. This reassessment also suggests the power of contemporary events to direct historical inquiry. As E. H. Carr once observed, history is a dialogue between past and present. The "new" military historians are developing what 2 they believe is an apposite understanding of America's martial experience. Two recently published studies on America's formative years illustrate this trend especially well. They are quite different in nature.John Shy has gathered many of his perceptive essays on the war of American independence, made some minor alterations, and added introductions and a conclusion. The result is a useful collection, but not an integrated book. Richard Kohn, by contrast, has constructed a meticulously researched and reasoned inquiry into Federalist military policies from 1783 to 1800.2 Both authors reveal the social and intellectual themes in the "new" military history, and reflect as well how current concerns can raise historical questions. John Shy is a man with a message. He strongly believes that war can change society, having closely observed the impact of the Vietnamese conflct on American life. Strategy and military policy, military service, and warfare are functionally related to politics, social structure, and national self-perceptions. Shy believes that in the last realm t_hestruggle for independence was truly significant (pp. x-xi). 3 But he is more suggestive than persuasive, since with the exception of the essay on that natural maverick Charles Lee, Shy does not probe precisely enough to show how American perceptions altered as a result of the conflct. If one considers the kinds of military forces Americans sought to employ, for example, it is clear that the three strands of the colonial period-militia, volunteers, regulars-continued. Shy also confesses that the American leaders never sought to develop unconventional strategy or tactics. Charles Lee's suggestions for what we would term guerrilla warfare appalled George Washington, who, along with many other American leaders, had conservative strategic and tactical ideas. One can argue that the struggle helped to weld the non-loyalist Americans together. It certainly produced an embryo nationalist party in the Continental Congress by 1783, although localism, states' rights, and regionalism seem to have been more widespread tendencies. Shy does not make good all his claims for the interrelationship of war and American society, despite his stimulating ideas. Chapter 9 is the most imaginative essay dealing with the Revolution. Shy takes contemporary doctrines on counter-insurgency, which American policy makers sought to apply in Vietnam after 1960, and presents revolutionary violence correctly as "less an instrument of physical destruction than one kind of persuasion." But he is careful to note that one cannot chop history to...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1710-114X
Print ISSN
0007-7720
Pages
pp. 1-10
Launched on MUSE
2019-01-02
Open Access
No
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